Stuff I’ve Been Reading: November 2005
- A Little History of the World—Ernst Gombrich
- What Good Are the Arts?—John Carey
- What I Loved—Siri Hustvedt
- Death and the Penguin—Andrey Kurkov
- The Trick of It—Michael Frayn
- Housekeeping—Marilynne Robinson
- Over Tumbled Graves—Jess Walter
- Unnameable comedy thriller—Anonymous
On my copy of Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, there is a quote from Anthony Burgess that describes the novel as “one of the few books I have read in the last year that has provoked laughter.” Initially, it’s a blurb that works in just the way the publishers intended. Great, you think. Burgess must have read a lot of books; and both the quote itself and your knowledge of the great man suggest that he wouldn’t have chuckled at many of them. So if The Trick of It wriggled its way through that forbidding exterior to the Burgess sense of humor, it must be absolutely hilarious, right? But then you start to wonder just how trustworthy Burgess would have been on the subject of comedy. What, for example, would have been his favorite bit of Jackass: The Movie? (Burgess died in 1993, so sadly we will never know.) What was his most cherished Three Stooges sketch? His favorite Seinfeld character? His top David Brent moment? And after careful contemplation, your confidence in his comic judgment starts to feel a little misplaced: there is a good chance, you suspect, that Anthony Burgess would have steadfastly refused even to smile at many of the things that have ever made you chortle uncontrollably.
Sometimes it feels as though we are being asked to imagine cultural judgments as a whole bunch of concentric circles. On the outside, we have the wrong ones, made by the people who read The Da Vinci Code and listen to Celine Dion; right at the center we have the correct ones, made by the snootier critics, very often people who have vowed never to laugh again until Aristophanes produces a follow-up to The Frogs. (I haven’t read James Wood’s collection of essays The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel, but I’m counting on Woody to provide a useful counterbalance to that sort of high moral seriousness. So I’m presuming that all the comic greats—P. G. Wodehouse, the Molesworth books, George and Weedon Grossmith, and so on—are present and correct between its covers.) The world is a lot more complicated than this diagram allows, of course, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Frog people don’t know everything. If I had to choose between a Celine Dion fan and Anthony Burgess for comedy recommendations, I would go with the person standing on the table singing The Power of Love every time. I’ll bet Burgess read Candide—I had a bad experience with Candide only recently—with tears of mirth trickling down his face.
As you may have guessed by now, The Trick of It didn’t make me laugh, so I’m feeling insecure. It’s brilliant—witty, smart, readable, and engaging; but you know that bit in Jackass: The Movie when the guy takes a crap in the bathroom shop? Well, gags of that quality are conspicuously absent. I suspect that it wasn’t Michael Frayn’s intention to provide them, either; I raise the comparison only because when you see the word “funny” all over a paperback (Burgess was not alone in having his ribs tick-led), it raises expectations to a possibly unrealistic level. The Trick of It is about the relationship between a young college professor and his area of expertise, a middle-aged woman novelist he refers to as JL. This relationship becomes complicated, although perhaps in some ways simplified, when he sleeps with her and then marries her: he thus becomes a part of his own research material, a chapter in her still unwritten biography. We have objected to novels about writers and writing in this column before, have we not? We are concerned that the presible Self: Laughter and the Novel, but I’m counting on Woody to provide a useful counterbalance to that sort of high moral seriousness. So I’m presuming that all the comic greats—P. G. Wodehouse, the Molesworth books, George and Weedon Grossmith, and so on—are present and correct between its covers.) The world is a lot more complicated than this diagram allows, of course, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Frog people don’t know everything. If I had to choose between a Celine Dion fan and Anthony Burgess for comedy recommendations, I would go with the person standing on the table singing The Power of Love every time. I’ll bet Burgess read Candide—I had a bad experience with Candide only recently—with tears of mirth trickling down his face.
As you may have guessed by now, The Trick of It didn’t make me laugh, so I’m feeling insecure. It’s brilliant—witty, smart, readable, and engaging; but you know that bit in Jackass: The Movie when the guy takes a crap in the bathroom shop? Well, gags of that quality are conspicuously absent. I suspect that it wasn’t Michael Frayn’s intention to provide them, either; I raise the comparison only because when you see the word “funny” all over a paperback (Burgess was not alone in having his ribs tick-led), it raises expectations to a possibly unrealistic level. The Trick of It is about the relationship between a young college professor and his area of expertise, a middle-aged woman novelist he refers to as JL. This relationship becomes complicated, although perhaps in some ways simplified, when he sleeps with her and then marries her: he thus becomes a part of his own research material, a chapter in her still unwritten biography. We have objected to novels about writers and writing in this column before, have we not? We are concerned that the preciousness to which these novels can be prone will alienate the last few readers left out there. But we have no complaints in this case, you and Michael Frayn will be delighted to hear. The Trick of It has a healthy resonance rather than a sickly insularity—anyone who has ever been a fan will recognize something in here—and if you’ve read Frayn’s work then you will know how effortlessly clever he is, and thus you can imagine the fun he has with the hall of mirrors he has rigged up here.
I’ve been reading Housekeeping off and on since I finished Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, a while back, but I kept losing it and getting distracted, and in the end I put it down for a while because I was being disrespectful to a novel that people clearly love. I thought I knew what Housekeeping would be because I’ve seen Bill Forsyth’s lovely film adaptation a couple of times; I thought it would be warm and quirky, like the movie, except with better prose. Indeed, during the floods in Louisiana I nearly stopped reading the book again, for the hundredth time, because there is a description of a flood right at the beginning of the book, and I was worried that warmth and quirkiness would jar, fight horribly with the scenes we were seeing on the news. So I wasn’t prepared for what I actually got, which was this extraordinary, yearning mystical work about the dead and how they haunt the living; if books can work as music, then Housekeeping served as a soundtrack to the footage from New Orleans. The dead haunting the living, the core of the book….That was missing from the movie, as far as I remember. I’m not sure Bill Forsyth knew what to do about all the souls at the bottom of the lake, so he concentrated on his eccentric central characters, and how a small community finds this eccentricity hard to accommodate. It’s a fine, slightly conventional theme, but now I’ve read the book, I can see that this is rather like making attractive ashtrays out of Kryptonite.
One of the souls at the bottom of the lake belongs to the mother of Ruth, the novel’s teenage narrator, and of her sister Lucille; Helen drove into the lake, calmly and deliberately, when her daughters were young. Her father, the girls’ grandfather, is down there somewhere too, along with the passengers on a train that came off the bridge that crosses the water. Ruth and Lucille never knew their father, so eventually their aunt Sylvie comes to live with them. She’s not much of a mother figure, Sylvie. She sits in the dark surrounded by empty tin cans and old news-papers, and yearns to go back to traveling around on the railroads, but she stays anyway. Have you ever seen that great Stanley Spencer picture, The Cookham Resurrection? It depicts the dead coming alive again, sleepy and bewildered, in the small, pretty, and (otherwise) unremarkable Thameside village where Spencer lived. I’m sure that Robinson must have had the painting in some part of her extraordinary mind when she wrote Housekeeping. There is that same strange fusion of the humdrum and the visionary, and though Fingerbone, the bleak little town where the novel is set, clearly isn’t as cute as Cookham, it still seems an unlikely location for waking dreams about a reunion of the living and all the people we have ever lost. (“Families should stay together,” says Sylvie at the end of the book. “Otherwise things get out of control. My father, you know. I can’t even remember what he was like, I mean when he was alive. But ever since, it’s Papa here and Papa there, and dreams.”)
It’s quite clear to me now, having read her two novels, that Marilynne Robinson is one of America’s greatest living writers, and certainly there’s no one else like her. I think I am using that phrase literally: I have never come across a mind like this one, in literature or anywhere else, for that matter. Sometimes her singular seriousness, and her insistent concentration on the sad beauty of our mortality, make you laugh, in an Anthony Burgess kind of way. Pools and ponds and lakes “taste a bit of blood and hair,” observes Ruth, with customary Robinsonian good cheer. “One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.” She may be a great writer, but you wouldn’t want her on your camping holiday, would you? (I know, I know, that’s a cheap joke, and I’m making the schoolboy error of confusing narrator and author; Marilynne Robinson almost certainly spends her camping holidays singing Beach Boys songs and trying to give everyone wedgies.)
We have, from time to time in these pages, expressed our impatience with a certain kind of literary fiction. (By “these pages,” I mean the two I’m given. And by “we,” I mean “I.” The Spree would never express their impatience with literary fiction. In fact, “the duller the better” is engraved on the gates, in enormous letters, at Spree Castle.) To us, it can sometimes seem overwrought, pedestrian, po-faced, monotonous, out of touch; we would argue that literary fiction must take some of the blame for the novel’s sad disappearance from the center of our culture. But sometimes, a book just can’t help being literary; it can’t do anything about its own complication, because its ideas defy simple expression. It took me forever to read Housekeeping, but it’s not possible to read this short book quickly, because it comes fitted with its own speed bumps: the neo–Old Testament prose, exactly the right language for Robinson’s heartbreaking, prophetic images. And I’m glad I wasn’t able to race through it, too, because the time I spent with it means that it lives with me still.
I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep, and dark and rich): it’s possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul? It’ll get flushed out by something else before it’s even halfway there. The trouble is that most literary novels don’t do anything but touch the sides. They stick to them like sludge, and in the end you have to get the garden hose out. (I have no idea what that might mean. But I had to escape from the metaphor somehow.)
Neither of the other books I read this month were sludgy, at least. I read and loved Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince recently, so I wanted to check out one of his earlier books. Unlike Citizen Vince, Over Tumbled Graves belongs firmly within the crime genre, although it’s not formulaic—it actually plays cleverly with the serial-killer formula. I enjoyed it a lot, but on the evidence of the recent book, Walter is a writer who is heading for territory that gives him more freedom than genre fiction allows. Under the Believer guidelines, the second novel must remain nameless because I hated it so much. I was recommended it by a friend with normally impeccable taste, and he’s not alone—my paperback copy contains blurbs from a couple of clever literary figures who really should know better. Is the phrase “Deliciously politically incorrect” used with the same gay abandon in the U.S.? You come across it all the time here, and usually it means, quite sim-ply, that a book or a movie or a TV program is racist and/or sexist and/or homophobic; there is a certain kind of cultural commentator who mysteriously associates these prejudices with a Golden Age during which we were allowed to do lots of things that we are not allowed to do now. (The truth is that there’s no one stopping them from doing anything. What they really object to is being recognized as the antisocial pigs they really are.)
Anyway, this book is “deliciously politically incorrect.” The narrator, who fancies himself as a cross between James Bond and Bertie Wooster, thinks it’s funny to transpose the rs and ls in dialogue spoken by Chinese people, and has what he clearly regards as sound advice for women in the process of being raped: “lie quite still, try to enjoy it. The choice is a simple one: a brief and possibly not unpleasant invasion of one’s physical privacy—or a painful bashing causing the loss of one’s good looks and perhaps one’s life.” There may well have been men like this in the 1970s, when this book was written, but they were not clever men. It would have been torture to listen to them for two minutes at a bus stop, and you certainly don’t want to hang around with them while they narrate a whole book. To compound the reader’s misery, this narrator favors a jocular, florid circumlocution intended to invoke the spirit of Wodehouse, who is unwisely mentioned twice in the first fifty pages. I ended up hurling him across the room. At the time of writing, I haven’t been able to confront the friend who recommended the book, but there will, I’m afraid, be bloodshed.
I really want to read every book I bought this month. That’s true of every month, of course, and usually nothing happens, but this month I really really want to read the books I bought. I have just been to a wonderful literary festival in Iceland, where I spent time with Siri Hustvedt and Andrey Kurkov and lots of other interesting, companionable writers; and it’s true that there is a slight possibility, judging from my track record, that either of these novels might fall off the bedside pile at some stage in the future, but surely they can see that the commitment is there? And the two works of nonfiction, by John Carey and Ernst Gombrich, have the most perfect titles imaginable: I desperately need to know what the uses of the arts are, and the great John Carey, who wrote the great The Intellectuals and the Masses, is undoubtedly the man to tell me, and thus make me feel better about the ways in which I waste my time. He may even tell me that I’m not wasting my time, as long as he manages to get solitaire and football under the arts umbrella. The title of Gombrich’s book, meanwhile, cleverly isolates the precise area in which I am most ignorant. How did he know?